By Joe Beck -- firstname.lastname@example.org
Few people know exactly what state police are investigating in the Shenandoah Farms Fire Department, and Harlan Cook isn't one of them.
The department's chief is confident, though, about what triggered the investigation -- a "substantial" amount of bingo money that was discovered missing from a department safe earlier this year. Cook estimated the amount at slightly more than $1,000.
The thief's identity is unknown, if indeed it even was a theft, Cook said.
He said he has been told by another government official to expect a visit from investigators within a few days.
Cook spoke of the investigation as the most painful experience in his 44-year career in the fire service, but he doesn't minimize its seriousness. The department has a new safe and now limits the number of people with access to the lock combination to two or three, a sharp departure from past practice.
Cook is cooperating with Warren County officials in turning the department's bills over to them for payment while the investigation is continuing.
"It's a bad situation when something like this occurs in a fire department," he said. "I hate to think anybody would steal from a fire department, as hard as we work for our money."
Still, he couldn't hide his bitterness over the intervention of outside agencies, which he blames on an unknown whistle-blower within the department's ranks. He said the third-party audit and subsequent state police investigation prevented the department from conducting its own investigation and imposing its own remedies when the missing bingo money was discovered.
"Some rat came out of the department ... without giving us a chance to get it right," he said.
Cook acknowledged finding signs of financial and personnel mismanagement identified in complaints made by members of the public to the Warren County Board of Supervisors. Warren County and Clarke County pay for much of the department's annual operating budget of $90,000 to $100,000. Before taking a job with Warren County, he had been the department's chief for 11 years.
He said he and a new management team have done much to improve management and performance at the department since his return. The bingo money theft and investigation led some volunteers to leave, he said, a blow to a 60-member department, of whom about 12 or 15 answer fire and rescue calls. The remainder help with fundraising and other support.
"I just hope [the investigation] is over soon," Cook said. "I don't want people to give up on us."